Rhetorical questions: of rocks and Jell-O

So this past weekend was the Reason Rally, where atheists from all over the United States gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to make a powerful political point: atheists exist and we are paying attention to politics. The kind of obsequious Jesus-based pandering that is the lifeblood of American democracy is at a particular peak, which makes more baffling the claims of Christians to be some kind of oppressed minority who is forbidden from practicing their faith by the evil secularist government forces headed by secular Muslim socialist Caliph Barack Obama (I am trying to distill a bunch of crazy into one sentence, so I am making this parenthetical thought extra-long in order to not overload the ratio of crazy:comprehensible… almost there… how are all of you doing?).

I didn’t go to the Reason Rally, but I was overjoyed to see a segment on MSNBC’s Up! With Chris Hayes where an all-atheist panel was assembled to discuss some of the rally’s major issues. I was quite impressed with the panel’s mere existence, because it stands in sharp contrast to the usual practice of having a lone atheist forced to contend with one or more idiots presenting “the other side” uncritically. The atheist’s time is then consumed almost entirely in distractions, forced to explain what atheism is, the difference between criticism of belief vs. believers, and in some cases having to explain grade 6 science to grown adults. This panel was different though; everyone (including the host) was an atheist, and thus could discuss the vagaries of the divergent viewpoints within organized atheism without having to stop every five seconds and explain why there are still monkeys.

I enjoyed watching the show, despite having a few objections (that are not really worth going into), and thought it was quite a coup for a nationally broadcast program to put that many atheists on camera at once. But then I read this:

The self-congratulatory unanimity that presided over the discussion was challenged at one point by Hayes, who posed the following question: If you hold to the general skepticism that informs scientific inquiry — that is, if you refuse either to anoint a viewpoint in advance because it is widely held or to send viewpoints away because they are regarded as fanciful or preposterous — how do you respond to global-warming deniers or Holocaust deniers or creationists when they invoke the same principle of open inquiry to argue that they should be given a fair hearing and be represented in departments of history, biology and environmental science? What do you do, Hayes asked, when, in an act of jujitsu, the enemies of liberal, scientific skepticism wield it as a weapon against its adherents?

Hoo boy. Hold on to your bullshit detectors folks, because three paragraphs in and I can already detect the distinctive odour of the “atheism is just another religion” argument.

The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had already made: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.

Here’s my problem (well, one of them at least) with this ponderous lump of shit that somehow managed to deserve publication in the New York Times – you cannot ask a rhetorical question if it has an answer. If someone published an article in a reputable source that said “Where was Barack Obama really born?”, they’d be mocked openly by anyone with the slightest shred of journalistic integrity. The circumstances of President Obama’s birth are not exactly unexamined, and we have abundant confirmation of the official story. Pretending as though there’s anything but a succinct, well-established answer to your stupid question is not grounds for constructing an argument for “the other side”. Nor is pretending as though the answer you are given somehow lacks legitimacy:

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Ah yes, Mr. Fish has discovered the glaring hole in the materialist argument – it assumes the world exists. Congratulations, Mr. Fish – you have reached the lofty sophistication of a stoned freshman philosophy student asking how we ‘know’ that, like, the world isn’t just, like, an illusion, man? He then moves to the crux of his argument, that their assumption of the existence of the material world is just as big a leap as his assumption that a magic man done it. He then goes on to call liberals hypocrites because we decry others for taking things on faith, but we totally have faith in science too, man! Gussying the point up in elaborate language (and to be sure, Mr. Fish is an abundantly capable writer) sadly does not lend any credibility to the fact that he is making an argument barely worthy of Ray Comfort.

His position basically boils down to this: science isn’t perfect, and liberals pretend it is, so therefore it’s just as reasonable to believe that the universe is 6,000 years old and that the intelligent creator thereof manifested itself in human form in an illiterate region of the world about 2,000 years ago in order to sacrifice himself to appease his own bizarre moral requirements. He therefore chastises them (us) for not giving religious folks an “even break” when it comes to listening to different kinds of arguments. I will shamelessly steal a counterargument from a friend of mine in explaining why someone should take Mr. Fish’s law degree away from him*.

Imagine that you and I are trying to build a structure out of wood. We have the planks sawed and measured, and have many nails at the ready to attach them to each other. As tools, I have a rock while you have a handful of Jell-O. Both of these tools are, technically, capable of ‘driving nails into wood’ as long as we use a really relaxed definition of ‘drive’ and ‘into’ (and ‘nails’ and ‘wood’). The rock is not the perfect driver of nails – a hammer is better, a nail gun is superior to that, and I suppose some kind of tool that teleports nails instantaneously into wood with zero effort would be the ideal. However, every time you use your tool, it yields consistently shitty results – Jell-O is not a useful tool for the task we are faced with. Despite the imperfections of the rock, it is observably better at handling nails than your handful of gelatinous dessert.

Fish’s counter-argument would be that the rock is only better if you accept the standard definitions of ‘drive’ and ‘into’ and ‘nails’ and ‘wood’, tied up as they are in the rock-paradigm. “It’s a circular argument”, he’d gibber. My response to him is twofold. First, we are being asked to deal with questions about the material world. It is not a circular argument to accept the assumption that the world exists, since the question being posed already makes that assumption. Given that the existence of material reality is already granted in the very premise of the discussion, material-based methods are the best for answering that question.

Second, you are asking us to give the Jell-O of faith an “even break” for the possibility of answering questions about the universe when it has demonstrated its complete uselessness in answering any material questions. Until you can somehow demonstrate (rather than simply asserting) the ability of faith to answer any kind of question better than science, then it’s not a question of “other ways of knowing” – it’s a question of useful vs. not useful. Faith is not a useful way of gaining material knowledge – if it was, then the two methods would converge on answers instead of diverging.

I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this to a grown-up with degrees, but then again, tide goes in and tide goes out – you can’t explain that.

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*Seriously – if you don’t understand how evidence works, should you be allowed to teach law? I suppose that’s another one of those non-rhetorical questions, because the answer is “no you fucking shouldn’t”


  1. A. R says

    Stanley Fish would seem to have a very poor understanding of the term evidence. I was waiting for a banana or a crocoduck to pop out.

  2. machintelligence says

    From my (admittedly limited) reading of Mr. Fish, his primary ability is to impress other lawyers with his rhetoric. Short response to the question of why we “believe” in materialism and science: Because it works, asshole.

  3. jamessweet says

    He then moves to the crux of his argument, that their assumption of the existence of the material world is just as big a leap as his assumption that a magic man done it.

    I actually agree with this. It’s just that, I am not aware of anybody who assumes that “a magic man done it” who does not also assume the existence of the material world.

    I have said many times I believe the Problem of Induction is intractable. I do believe that inductive reasoning is valid, but I don’t think there is any way of justifying that belief without appealing to a circular argument. However, everybody — possibly accepting hardcore nihilists and “stoned freshman philosophy students” — accepts the validity of inductive reasoning, including Mr. Fish. And if somebody wants to assert that inductive reasoning is invalid, I invite them to do so: Everything they say after that becomes gibberish, since I must rely on inductive reasoning to make any sense of their use of language.

    Nobody actually asserts that. They may point out that the philosophical foundations of such reasoning are shaky, but they don’t actually deny its validity. So it’s a purely academic exercise.

    By contrast, I can (and do) attack the validity of faith-based reasoning, and my words do not turn to gibberish as a result.

  4. Stuart says

    I love the rock vs jello analogy, but even that seems to fall short because the whole issue rests on a category error. Science is NOT a body of lore in the same manner as religions are. Religion offers a set of answers to questions. What science offers is not a list of approved answers, but rather a method – a system by which we can answer not just the particular questions that other people have already asked, but any question about the material world that interests us. Comparing science and religion is not comparing jello to rocks, or even jello to hammers – it is comparing jello to the whole edifice of carpentry.

  5. darksmurf says

    Having a law degree does not mean that one is capable of critical reasoning outside the legal context. Santorum has a JD. This is a classic example of compartmentalization. People put their religious beliefs in a box in their brain that is somehow shielded from inquiry. When confronted with information that challenged their beliefs, people (even those with law degrees) stick their fingers in their ears and hum loudly.

  6. says

    This is why I always start a lecture on religious skepticism with reference to the Greek skeptics and nihilism and solipsism. “Yes,” I tell them, “we’re making these assumptions that underlie modern skepticism and naturalism. However, if you start acting as though these assumptions don’t apply to you, what’s going to happen? You’ll very quickly end up dead or in jail. In day-to-day life, we all make these same assumptions. They’re not special to atheists.”

    Basic, basic stuff, Mr. Fish.

  7. says

    Fuck. Yes. This was pretty.

    I mean aside from the first paragraph which I had to reread three times because my dyslexia and all but still.

    Shiny nice prettiness.

  8. mynameischeese says

    “…They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods…”

    Um, doesn’t everyone begin with this assumption? First of all, anyone practicing science, no matter what their religion, begins with this assumption.

    Furthermore, don’t most theists actually begin with this assumption as well? Isn’t that why they have those quaint little stories that explain how Dog made the world out of some clay and shit? If they didn’t think the world was a material thing that can be described, why would they attempt to describe it with stories? And why would they draw a distinction between the material world (this one) and the immaterial one (the afterlife)?

  9. kagekiri says

    Yeah….I know medical doctors who are still creationists, and I was pretty good at biology even when I was a hard-core creationist who was so glad “Answers in Genesis” and other creationist scientists existed, so it’s possible to just shove all the evolutionary knowledge into your “work box” or “biology box”, then put your “faith no matter what” into your “religion box.”

    Then stuff some fake evidence or casual dismissals and God in the gaps in between them (“God could’ve made the Universe 6000 years ago but made it look older”, “God could’ve guided evolution”, “fossils are God’s way of testing us”, “those other scientists are lying about evidence for macro evolution because they falsely dismiss the God hypothesis, but micro-evolution is provable”) and you’re set.

  10. mynameischeese says

    I once had to review a book on creationist archeology written by a dentist. The main argument of the book was that evolution is crap because humans are actually “devolving,” because humans now only live 80 years wheras in the Bible, they lived for 800 years. Also, neanderthalls are the “lost tribe of Levi.”

    Yeah. It was a riot. But my point is, the man who wrote it is a dentist, so presumably he went to med school.

  11. says

    Stanley Fish is always like that, as Hamilton Jacobi’s link indicates.

    As for his “ponderous lump of shit that somehow managed to deserve publication in the New York Times,” remember that they also publish Ross Douthat and David Brooks. Therefore, “the lofty sophistication of a stoned freshman philosophy student” will seem very sage indeed to any number of NYT readers.

  12. Zugswang says

    I was with you right up until

    It is not a circular argument to accept the assumption that the world exists, since the question being posed already makes that assumption. Given that the existence of material reality is already granted in the very premise of the discussion, material-based methods are the best for answering that question.

    That, to me, sounds too much like begging the question. In the same vein, asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin assumes the existence of angels. But then, Stanley Fish would also probably take issue with the assumption of the existence of pins, dancing, and conjunctions.

    I would argue the material world exists by virtue of the fact you’re having a discussion at all. If Mr. Fish wishes to make the excessively reductionist ontological argument that the material world doesn’t exist, I would like to hear his explanation of how is he able to posit the question in the first place.

    There’s a big difference between assuming truth and recognizing something as a universally self-evident fact. I can’t “assume” the existence of the material world any more than I can “assume” aluminum is aluminum or 1+1=2. He’s making a bizarre assertion that uses words in erroneous contexts.

  13. ender says

    Fish is basically a professional troll… He doesn’t even agree with his own columns, which are there for the sole purpose of getting the NYTimes commentariat (and now this blog) all hot and bothered.

    This is probably not going to make me popular around here, but the original article does point out one thing which I find interesting, and which often comes up when I’m doing research on the role of science in politics. While the comparison of science and religion is completely tired, overplayed, and obnoxious, there is a reason it won’t go away.

    I think that scientists and skeptics often fail to make a sufficient distinction between scientific methods/practice and the authority of science as a sociological phenomenon. Basically, while science can be seen as a self-correcting, finely tuned machine for understanding the world, that is not how it is lived by most non-scientists. For most people, science is something done by other people, and lacking the time, resources, and training to investigate its findings, its propositions have to be accepted on the basis of credibility/trust. The fact that science has actually done something to earn this trust is not irrelevant, but it is not the whole story either.

    For example, I think Deepak Chopra has nothing useful to say about quantum whatever, though he does babble on and on. But it is not because I understand the weak nuclear force; it’s because his basic epistemological principles are steeped in woo, and that is good enough for me to reject whatever comes out of his mouth. Call it intellectual laziness if you like, but I think everyone here has done this.

    I can imagine a counterargument to this that goes something like: “But you’re typing this comment on a computer designed and built by applying quantum physics, you jerk.” I think that misses the point.

    While science’s proven ability to build things like the internet and PCs is a good reason for tending to believe scientists when they say things, that is a separate question from how the belief operates in the social sphere. It operates as a heuristic, a shortcut: something that divides people into opposing camps and makes judgements on their ideas based on their classification. Science provides the best position, but the position is not ideologically neutral as it is applied.

    Although Stanley Fish is still a jackass, I’m not sure this post did a very good job of interpreting his position.

  14. F says

    * Lawyers aren’t so often required to understand or follow rules of evidence when making an argument. He may have a firm grasp of how evidence works, and he is simply lying in some form – it is a common method of convincing a jury.

  15. says

    I remember when a sixth-grade classmate said that you had a 50% chance of getting the answer to any math question right, because your answer could be “either right or wrong”.

    He realized *his* mistake…

  16. Stacy says

    Fish is an idiot, ’nuff said.


    everyone…was an atheist, and thus could discuss the vagaries of the divergent viewpoints within organized atheism without having to stop every five seconds and explain why there are still monkeys

    –made me lol.

  17. Jules says

    Gah! You need a trigger warning before you go quoting Stanley Fish!

    I made the mistake of taking Major Writers: Milton while I was attending Oral Roberts University, and I was forced to read Surprised by Sin. I admit that it was an error on my part to take the class in the first place (Paradise Lost, as interpreted through evangelical fundamentalism? sign me up!), but had I known then what a fucking infuriating dipshit Stanley Fish is, I could’ve spared my GPA that little dip.

    Because apparently writing Stanley Fish is an idiot isn’t what advanced level lit professors consider a decent literary analysis, and I’m incapable of articulating anything else when I come within 10 feet of his vapidity.

  18. Stuart says

    Given that the question about angels dancing on the head of a pin is one about mathematics, not theology (the point of the question is to decide between an actual infinity of angels, and a potential infinity that is only ever filled by finite numbers of arbitrary size,) it is perfectly acceptable to assume that angels exist, and have particular supernatural properties, for the purpose of that question. If you answer by disputing the existence of angels, you are completely missing the point of the question.

    Similarly, if I ask you how to cook a steak, and you tell me how to do so, and I then say “Ahah, but you have simply assumed that the steak exists! That proves that all cooking is just blind faith!” you would be well within your rights to assume I’m a complete moron.

  19. ash says

    On the contrary. Fish is a good lawyer. Remember, the language of law is used to obfuscate the truth, unlike science.

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